In life and politics, you get what you pay for.
But a poll this month from the Conservative Intelligence Briefing and Harper Polling reveals how networks of political Web sites and consultants blur the line between independent and campaign-sponsored data.
The poll was something of a bombshell, finding Midland University president Ben Sasse rocketing into a virtual tie -- 29 to 30 percent -- with front-runner Shane Osborn in Nebraska's Republican U.S. Senate primary, a far cry from the 32-point lead that Osborn’s own polling showed a few months ago. By all accounts, the new poll was great news for Sasse – an independent survey showing the conservative favorite making huge gains, upending conventional wisdom that Osborn was a prohibitive favorite.
But what hasn't been reported or disclosed about the poll is that its sponsor has ties -- albeit a couple degrees removed -- to one of Sasse's consultants, the Prosper Group. Basically, one of the owners of the Web site that sponsored the poll is also working for Sasse.
David Freddoso, the Conservative Intelligence Briefing's editor, told The Washington Post that the Web site decides which polls to conduct and that ownership has no say.
“Conservative Intelligence Briefing operates with complete editorial independence of our parent company, its ownership, and our advertisers,” Freddoso said in an e-mail.
The ties connecting the poll to Sasse are a little complex:
- The Conservative Intelligence Briefing, as Politico's Dylan Byers reported last week, is owned by GOP e-mail and fundraising consultant Conservative Connector.
- Prosper Group co-founder Kurt Luidhardt is part of the ownership team at Conservative Connector, and the address for both firms – on the Prosper Group Web site and in Federal Election Commission and Indiana state filings for Conservative Connector -- is the same Greenwood, Ind., address.
- Sasse's campaign paid the Prosper Group about $2,000 for Web hosting and consulting work in 2013, according to federal filings.
- Conservative Connector’s director of operations, Jen Harrington, also worked at the Prosper Group in the last election cycle.
And Sasse isn't the only one of the Prosper Group's clients whom the Conservative Intelligence Briefing has polled.
The Prosper Group has also done work for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), whose presidential prospects the Conservative Intelligence Briefing has polled. In addition, the Web site has polled the Iowa Senate race, where the Prosper Group has done work for GOP candidate Matt Whitaker. (Luidhardt promoted the poll, which showed Whitaker as the most viable general election candidate, on his Facebook page.)
The Conservative Intelligence Briefing, which has commissioned Harper Polling to conduct regular polling of top 2014 races and the 2016 presidential race, does not disclose its business ties to either Conservative Connector or the Prosper Group on its Web site or in its polls.
And technically speaking, it is under no obligation to do so. As Byers explained:
Since Conservative Intel is a general website -- made up largely of polls and blog posts -- it is not required to disclose its financial ties. There is no mention of the parent company on its website. On the Conservative Connector website, the right-leaning blog is listed at the bottom of the page as a "partner," without any additional explanation.
But the ties between the Web site and GOP consultants for the candidates it polls do raise questions about ethics and disclosure.
It's common sense to take any poll sponsored by a partisan source with a grain of salt. But the undisclosed connection to the Sasse campaign appears to flaunt standards of transparency in polling endorsed by campaigns and media aimed at helping readers judge their quality.
Rob Santos, the President of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), a professional organization of pollsters, points to the explicit guidelines for reporting a poll developed by the organization. He highlights the section that says the basic elements needed to assess the integrity of the research include “who sponsored, collected and funded the research."
The code of professional ethics that pollsters sign when joining AAPOR further states that the standards for disclosure should include “who sponsored the research study, who conducted it, and who funded it, including, to the extent known, all original funding sources.” A long list of leading campaign pollsters endorsed these principles of disclosure in an “Open Letter on Public Polling” from 2010.
(Full disclosure: Both authors are AAPOR members, holding offices in communications and journalist education.)
Luidhardt referred questions on the matter to Freddoso.
In the mainstream media, it is general practice to disclose any conflicts of interest when reporting on companies with whom you share ownership. The Washington Post and Amazon.com, for instance, are both owned by Jeff Bezos, and that relationship is disclosed in stories and blog posts about Amazon, even as the Post remains editorially independent.
Aaron Blake contributed to this report.